I started to stare in wonder at the world, this unique universe around me. The minister at the side of the road trying to get a lift to only God knows where. Perhaps he was only pretending because he wanted to hitch a ride. Life was easy for me. It was not so easy for other people.
God, adolescent girls, bullies and the Holy Ghost fed the beasts of my imagination.
God did not captivate me in Sunday school. He captivated me in the world, the people, the slamming observations around me, in pale faces and dark ones, in normality and abnormality, children who had Down syndrome, were crippled, or handicapped in some way, the mentally ill, in poetry, as I sat on my father's lap and he stroked my hair.
I adopted the realities of the poet's words I read in my mind. Smelled scents in the night air, the night sky, the emblazoned stars, scent in hair. Without pain, I was blinded. I could not write. I could not see a way through to communicate even simple things. Things of the past that kept me back. A white girl with a halo of blonde hair, with pink, rubbery, pillows for lips who played hockey with thick ankles and sturdy well-built legs and who wore black nail polish on her toes who picked on me daily in the posh high school I went to. I only hoped to break through racial barriers and I think I achieved that. They even gave me an academic award at the end of the year.
It was hellish but I survived. The footprints I carved out there on the steps of those imposing brick buildings prepared me for the future and it taught me that everything I reached out for was within limits and that the past did not determine your future. All I saw around me were rich white girls. They even looked angelic in their school uniforms. The Indian girls were snobs, introverts and cleverer than just about anyone. Their parents were doctors and pharmacists. They came from money.
They never swam when it was physical education. They all had letters from their parents. Adolescence, no matter how painful it was, instructed my writing. The coloured girls lived half-lives. At school they were model scholars, writing down their homework in huge diaries, dutifully studying, acting out whatever the white girls did, speaking like them with posh accents, wore their hair like they did in plaits and bobs and when they went home to their lesser than suburbs, lesser than households they turned wild, went to the shop for bread and milk, wore their hair loose, kissed boys behind the bus stop, held hands, thought reading was boring.
I taught myself to stay calm under pressure; ever watchful under the energy and flow resonating within the crouched limbs of a child navigating the internal; an alien rush for eternity; the essence of a street child's hunger and loneliness. I turned it into a poem.
I feel when I am writing as if I am awake in someone else's dream. Religion was magical but writing made me feel omnipotent. It is demanding. It's gut wrenching. It is a brutal exercise. You're the permanent subordinate while whatever holy ceremony is taking place, stringing the words together into sentences like a rope of pearls switches gears, dropping bombs inside your mind; a mine field.
Does it start from the womb? This clamour for attention, this need, this want, this desire to be heard, to be read and to be desired in return? For your words to remain behind as scar tissue, simply read like a ripe fruit on the ground estranged from its brothers and sisters in the orchard hanging from the boughs of trees, like a bleeding slab of red meat, words read out loud on the mat where all the egghead children sit on and read from their readers, enthralling, suffocating, dominating, a country on an atlas or mapped out crazily in crayon in a colouring book, or a geographical location in a school project. Words must nurture like school, like mother, like father, like families at the beach or on holiday, like the books and words of other writers, poets, intellectuals and teachers.
It is not my fingertips that are in authority when it comes to tap-tap-tapping on the keyboard. It is something far more esoteric; something far more intimate and cerebral. It is something that is both lost and found. It is futile for me to say that it comes from within me and me alone, that it comes from the spirit of fear, that this deluge of elegant, elegant language that sums up the ordinary people whose lives are so extraordinary when I put pen to paper, that if I keep a healthy frame of mind; rising like the full moon; like a vision it will come.
I am empowered by the process and all that comes with it; patch its barriers, get sold by boundaries, by borders, by shades of smoke that nestle gravely in the air from old-fashioned pipes and cigarettes. I am only human; a woman. Having a father who suffers from depression, a mental illness, an aunt who suffers from alcoholism and writing frankly about these challenges and their daily challenges has reawakened my calling to service and to writing. I have been called to write, not to minister and not to become a missionary in a far off country like Russia or where it snows and you have to learn to speak a foreign language. A web was lying beneath all of that. I had not learned to shake it off yet. It comes with words; typed, scrawled, handwritten, jotted down hastily before it erases itself like time or a silhouette in sunlight from my memory.
Woman. Writing resurrects me. So what if it comes with wishful thinking, with regret, with verbal ammunition, persecution that consumes you when someone makes a negative comment about something that you have written, that something you can never let go of or surrender; this is it. It is the secret life of dreamers that is kept wanting. I have no doubt in my heart now that this is my career. I have finally come to this understanding. When we pray, we trust God.
When we fall asleep, we know tomorrow when we wake up it will be the next day. Therefore, we will follow the seven days of the week for a year. Just sometimes, I pretend I am a prizewinning journalist or a child at play with war. In my headspace, I am caught by the flow of a river, staring without fear as the current takes me; swallows me up whole in a whirlpool.
God calls to me out of the darkness into the light. I am only released in the precious words in fluid liquid reserved only for the barren landscape, the white ghost of the wilderness of the page. When I first began on this open road, I wrote what my heart was longing for, for a magical home, for magical innocence about the things I once had in my possession, for self-indulgent thinking, for a mother's magical love written magically on my body. I never realised even for an instant that the magic was already inside of me, hidden within the depths of my ego, just waiting to be awakened, pushed opened like a window, a door left ajar, a fence or a gate.
I sit here as the aftertime explodes into life continued. An Iris planting irises. Dirty hands from constant gardening, the bloody-everything of war on the television, in the air, in the newspaper, feet on the stairs, and a stampede in the house of childhood. And I remember the visions I had of men and women, older men and their wisdom and how now their aching vulnerabilities have become much more apparent to me. To insecure, eternally morally bankrupt, withdrawn me. Now my lonely oftentimes humiliating experiences feels like electricity to me. It feels like a rich, beautiful tapestry. The folds are magical. The details angelic like my mother's hair, my lovely sister's hands. She has come home. They have finally both come home to me.
She is leaving for Bloemfontein after Christmas. I love her so much that it hurts. An older sister. A younger sister much more skilled sister. She is returning to her cool, calm and collected self. She is returning to the villagers of Johannesburg and all her self-fulfilling prophecies. In the meantime, what happens to the rest of us? There will no longer be any waves of dissension, and you will not be able to cut through the air with a knife. Conversation will not wound. Words will not be sharp and ring in the air. There will be no talk period especially of suicidal illness and the book on the Rivonia Treason trial that my mother stole from the library, hid amongst her other textbooks because she wanted to know Nelson, Kathrada, peace in our time, Winnie, Drum magazine. I could go on but I think I will stop there.
Love changes everything with its dramatic highs and lows. Now I am in my father's wardrobe. I am remembering the peeling love I have for him, for his obstinate, sometimes arrogant turn of his head. His suits brush against my arms. Once upon a time, he was some girl's illusion before becoming a spouse, a husband, settling down and raising a family. Young love is a playful kind of love. All I see is a diary of pain, anxiety and madness when it comes to infinite love, the love that you find in a sonnet, resonating in the bond between mother and child, Mary and baby Jesus. All the reckonings of suicidal illness. Not all poetry is poetry without God, substance. Poetry is not poetry without poverty. Without the good things that are born from painful experience.
So the well of loneliness continues in this space, the most personal of spaces and the well has her song. It is a melody whose intuition flows as deeply as any river. We, the reader and the writer have come here and you might be asking yourself now that you have reached this turning point what has been the purpose of leading you up the nowhere with another Christmas story. My sister. She is perfect. She does not need to wash away her sins with organic descriptions.
She does not wish to visit shamans or old wise men or look upon totem poles only to travel to Peru. Everything about her is extraordinarily pure, a golden state, a garden state and private. It tells me, shows me every day that there can only be one winning woman at the end of the day. There are times when she smiles and something is lit up inside of me like a volcano but I do not lift that veil. I dare not. It is the only time when I remember the time when we were both curious creatures of a childhood where we played at being spiritual overachievers in Sunday school. When we were left to guess the first five books of the Old and the New Testament, taught to leave our ancestors lurking in every silver lining and the dust. Home was the place that other children called safe haven but what kept us anchored in our own was our dystopia, eyeing the vulnerable in others and keeping a look out for that, after finding it holding onto it for dear life (that was me). In addition, I have never stopped doing it.
It is another holiday. It is another lavish affair and an unhurried feast-meal. Nothing unchanged about that only it is another year ending of an interrupted life in an interrupted world (my interrupted life, my interrupted world). She is treated like a slave, a worker-bee, a drone, and I am a zombie untouched by the work ethic that must pull all of this tiger-of-a-holiday together. My beautiful sister is a bright, all-powerful and illuminating glare of nature.
The cat drinks out of a glass of water that has been standing there from the previous evening that I left out next to an apple's core. I made short work of a midnight feast of a glass of water and an apple. Before we sit down to lunch there are telephone calls to get out of the way to family in Johannesburg. The Johannesburg people. Cousins, cousins' children I will never know. I will never watch them grow up, hear them call my name; they will not learn to admire and respect me. Most of all they will not watch me grow old defiantly. In the middle of the lines caught up between the grey areas of madness and despair there is still beauty there but I will never, never have the opportunity of teaching them this. My mother's-love bleeds into my eyes. When I was a child, it was warm, sticky and sweet like Billy Joel's voice on the radio when he sings. Now it is pins and needles, diamonds of stars in the sky and now all I hear is her voice telling me that there is room for my gift in the world too. It is as if we are seeing the river, the novel wave, the wave, its burden for the first time, afresh, purified like a Catholic ritual.
Vodka for the pain. It is fragile up there. There is a faraway storm, an emotionally damaged gene pool in every battle study, an angel tongue, for every weaving of a scream there is a lucid one. There is a stem, a Jacob's ladder, a lover, a mother, an orphan, a wife, a constant gardener who has what it takes to build muscle in a mysterious, intriguing world.
You weave the awful, the terrible things that happened to you as a child into a story. You remember the bonds of family, the pathways to the familiar, the horrors of the sexual assault against her as a child, fighting the grave monsters within, and human suffering, injustice, waves of finding intimacy in the moveable feast of the sexual transaction. There is horror in intimacy too. When we find it, we usually look away. The brutality of man against man, that raw, animalistic anger, that walk and the fact that we must remind ourselves of who we are every day and just how much memory work that takes to roost, to brood, to reject, to pour ourselves into every ritual, wash away every sin. It seems as if all her life she has been in the pursuit of histories, love and prayer.
The light illuminates everything around her, the ghosts from her present to her past and the future ones, there is a sadness to the day as if all the world's burdens are upon it, another holocaust, another genocide, another otherworldliness. She is guarded and withdrawn. Her last love affair ended badly and now she must make up for it. She takes long walks either alone or with her father. She has come home. The wind is up and so is her mood but she knows it won't be for long until history catches up with her, the frustration of suicidal illness, mental illness, the stigma of it in the community, amongst her estranged family, feeling lost without the history of courage and prayer in the wilderness. Decay has broken out from the stem of her heart and all around her are volcano people.
She listens to them in a daydream day in and day out. She cannot go back to Johannesburg. She cannot go back to Swaziland. She cannot go back to Cape Town. There is no longer family there, threads that can connect her to her old life and besides she was always on the verge of a nervous breakdown when she was there. It is so cold now but the sun is still there, up-in-the-platter-of-the-sky, shining for what it was worth. Her mood veered from pensive to anxious (a separation anxiety). The rain has come and there is no longer dry soil in which nothing can grow or flower, the burning sand at the beachfront is gone, children do not play outside with their bicycles, quad bikes and balls, they have all gone inside. She does not hear their voices, their screams, laughter. Her brother is outside smoking. The more that he reveals himself she discovers that he is not so tough-rough-around-the-edges and she feels sorry for him, sorry for his girlfriend, sorry for her family and most of all sorry for his angelic son.
And she thinks to herself if she ever does it, kills herself, will she leave the car running, slit her wrists, jump off a bridge, hang herself or take an overdose of sleeping pills. She does not take it seriously though. She knows she would never do it. It is not because she is not brave enough; she just does not have it within her. She talks a big talk like the comfort she gets from strangers, their velocity. Once in a house on fire always in a house on fire. She always wanted to be surrounded by men. Their feverishly brilliant power, their scrapbooking intelligence and she was under the idea that somehow it would patch up her childhood and lonely adolescence. They were the ones who taught her poetry (how fresh and novel it could be), the bewildering movement of the memoir, the dynamic art of film and how it could give her a lifeline, anchor her buoyantly. However, it took her a long time to realise she was never the exclusive one. In addition, when she did it shattered something like glass within her.
When you are broken, when, how and where do you go from there? When you realise there are children in the picture and perhaps other lovers too. All her life she had been unafraid even of the sexual impulse in man and other women but then accidents began to happen all the time. A lot began to happen around her. Arguments, derisive comments in the workplace, the sexual harassment (boys being boys thinking that women were just toys, playthings, that young, tall, wallflower, inexperienced temporary worker). In Johannesburg she did not eat, she could not sleep at night; she tossed and turned turning over visions of the day in her head.
The sexual disorder, how she told herself repeatedly that there were no things such as ghosts but she still put the sheet over the mirror that looked like a river at night. A river that could reveal faces scissoring through the dark blue air and tell stories. Everything was bittersweet about Johannesburg, darkly blank, ghosts swimming, ghosts surfing resurfacing and she was the poised quiet woman, the sinner that moved from room to room until to the end of the world. Cape Town was a very, very lonely place but in Swaziland she met up with good citizens, young people, old people, children, black faces, white faces, brown faces.
Hair with different texture, straight, ironed, curly, relaxed with chemical treatments, blonde. They all had enchanting faces, the girls and boys, enchanting accents, came from all over Africa. An Africa she had never seen or heard of before. They all seemed to live idyllic lives in this green feast of rolling hill after rolling hill and twisting valleys. This was the empire of exotic coloured high school swans. The older sky until winter infiltrated it. For the first time she saw snow. She loved the night in Swaziland. It left her breathless, on the warpath with scars, poems about her mother and the wild sea of Port Elizabeth.
Wilderness was a wilderness. Her family and she went to a church there, stayed at a hotel, never went near the beach, and spent most of their time in the swimming pool or on the tennis court. The chlorine burned her eyes. Her brother and she would go swimming at night seeing how long most of the time who could hold their breath the longest under water. George was a widow's song. It was a sad town. She did not like the energy there. Then there was her other life. The opposite of sex. Elizabeth Donkin, Hunterscraig, Tara, Valkenburg and Garden City Clinic. The source of everything. Madness, despair, darkness, nightmares, scar tissue, her adventures in the silent night, in the light of day, yonder and the devil. All the girls she has ever met in her life are bone girls who have probably become bone women.